When a discussion, an old school presentation, and a section in a book I had paused reading but just picked back up all point to the same topic, it seems a good idea to write about it.
Sunday morning while I was reading over my news, I came across a story summary that talked about two high school students who were severely disciplined as a result of comments that they made about a teacher on Facebook. This resulted in an exasperated noise from me which spawned a really good discussion with Tiffany. The merits of this particular case aren’t really relevant but we had a lively discussion of where a society (in this case, a public school) should draw the line between having the discretion to use situations such as those kids as a teaching opportunity and having to deal with getting chastised by parents and communities for not having “objective” criteria, which seems to result in idiotic “zero-tolerance” policies which do nothing to actually curtail or change the behavior they punish.
Later in the day, I came across a presentation from my Advanced Software Engineering course in graduate school discussing the importance of good teams in producing quality products. One section that struck me again was the area where I discussed the creation of “methodologies” or “processes.” Specifically the dangers of creating rigid processes that took the power to be flexible out of the hands of the people implementing the process and force everything to be written down. I talked about the importance of the interview to find the right people who have the energy, creativity, and curiosity that is needed. One of my favorite authors, Fred Brooks, in The Mythical Man Month describes software development as a craft. It is neither purely an art as it produces practical output but neither is it the mechanical application of a set of rules. To quote Fred Brooks:
…There is delight of working in such a tractable medium. The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures…
The final nudge to talk about was when I picked up Justice Stephen Breyer’s Making our Democracy Work, which I have been reading on and off for a little while. I got back into the section where he is talking about the methods by which a judge needs to look at the laws he is being asked to rule on. Justice Breyer espouses what he calls a “purpose-oriented approach” to interpreting statutes. This method holds that the judge must look to the purpose that the legislature intended a law to serve when he is interpreting how it should be applied to a specific case. One of the arguments he uses to support his approach is that if judges were to only rely upon the specific text of a statue, the legislature would be forced to write encyclopedic laws covering every possible situation that might occur in the future.
How do these three topics come together in my head? To me they suggest a truth that I hold dear. In all systems we must trust the people who are implementing them to do the right thing. Processes, rules, and laws must be written in moderation. The old adage that says the tighter you squeeze your fist to hold onto something the more will slip through your fingers is appropriate in all walks of life. The strength of people is there flexibility and if you try to write rules and control every aspect of life or business or software development, you will stifle the very thing that allows for the greatest achievements.